Digital, charity and senior management


4/22/20175 min read

All are connected.

That’s the fantasy. Cheap broadband, a pocketful of android, the social savvy of the preteen. Lovely ideas but reality is so much messier. Broadband is not cheap if you buy it ad-hoc, as you must do it you are poor. Phones are cheap but they need data access to make them effective and mobile data is the last bastion of the profiteering networks. My teen knows a lot about how to use his phone to watch youtube but his understanding of how it all works is minimal — you have to have spent a little time coding to get how hand-stitched the digital world is.

But the worst simplification of this type is the senior with the ipad. This version of the digital myth has it that someone with an ipad (other tablets may be available) is somehow with it. Well they certainly can browse the net and get access to all those services that we all love like banking and shopping and facebook, so they are consumers of digital, yes. But like my teen they are pretty much clueless on how it works, conceptually and technically. Worse, they have no idea how to achieve all that lovely digital experience stuff at a technical, design or organisational level.

Why does this matter? Because that group of users is still in charge in most charities. And they are also on the board. There’s a closed loop here  —  people without a clue talking to people without a clue about something that is going to sink their charity if they don’t get it right.

I am being quite hard on this group but as I also sit on the very outside edge of it. I have just tipped into my fifties. That doesn’t make me a senior demographically but I would argue that the vast majority of 50 year olds have limited digital understanding. For the record I am currently a digital strategist and programme manager and have spent the last twenty years in digital, mostly designing, running, building and even selling websites. I have also done my share of email and social marketing.

I am up with digital largely because of early career failures. I built my first website when I was thirty and had just abandoned the tenuous career of being an actor. While my peers were forging ahead in the careers that were fashionable at the time (journalism, film) I was starting again taking baby steps in this strange new world that came squarking at you down the end of a phone line. I am old enough to remember AltaVista, the browser wars, the dotcom bubble. I remember (with great happiness) when CSS was introduced and the powerful feeling of connecting a website to a database for the first time. I am lucky enough to understand digital from the <html> tag up.

I doubt there are very many people older than me who had this experience (this luxury) and that makes me an outlier — an oldish person who understands what this digital thing is and had an inkling from the early days about how much it was going to blow the world up. I can think of two people out of my peer group who are inside digital properly, the rest have absolutely no idea what it is I do.

For the last ten years my bosses have always been younger than me and they are getting younger as I get older. Partly this is because I am not ‘management material’ and I am awful at career planning, I just tend to take the next job that looks interesting. The good thing about this is that it gives me great visibility of the digital nous of the next generation or two down. It’s very very good. People who select digital as a career in their early twenties and have any ability are really hitting their stride in their mid thirties. And I am pleased to say that four out of five of my last bosses were excellent — and they were also women; bonus!

This layer of the management chain are generally brilliant. The Heads of Digital and Marketing and Comms, the lead consultants, they are all great. The key issue is that the Venn diagram area that includes senior management and those that get digital from the ground up contains close to zero members.

You may argue that you don’t need to know the nuts and bolts of something to manage it, but we are not talking about checkouts at Tesco, we are talking about a primary shift in the way business is done. I don’t think that senior leaders really get it when we say ‘your digital estate is your organisation’. It’s a challenging thing to hear because, to a person without sufficient digital understanding, the implication is I am saying is ‘You do not understand how your organisation needs to function in the world.’ Actually it’s not even implied, that is exactly what I am saying.

When you put the heat on senior management there are two ways they react. Nine out of ten nod, and ignore you and then hope you will go away and one out of ten gets what you are saying and tries to help you but then run into the death squad of digital - the board.

It’s a structural problem. The whole career arc of doing your time and climbing the ladder, plays against the understanding of digital in an organisation. That 35 year old woman who heads up the web team, or the digital marketing team, should be in a senior position making the case for digital. No, better than that, they should be directly calling the shots on those key transformation projects that will make or break the organisation.

If you are a senior manager and you don’t have one of those clever young people in the top layer of your organisation then you really have to ask yourself why. You are probably scared, you probably think that they are being unfairly favoured. Well you need to get over that because if you don’t do that you will find yourself eaten by competitors. And you probably don’t really understand who your competitors are.

Charities are vulnerable, not just from the donor environment but also from ‘amateurs’. That guy on YouTube who also runs a Facebook group. That woman at the school gate with the school mums in a turbulent and active Whatsapp group. Formal and informal blend and it’s multiplied by network effects and passion. And money goes to the most connected not the most deserving, it’s a confused and crazy world for charities at the moment. People trust brands less and less and people with faces and presence more and more.

Charities are still reliant overly on their regular ‘principled’ donors, the radio four set. We are not engaging sufficiently with younger people. Yes it’s hard — it’s hard for me to follow along and I’ve been watching and doing this stuff for years, so it must be really difficult if you have no understanding of this stuff to start with. The temptation to bury your head in the sand and wait for retirement must be huge. But if you do that you are failing your organisation and it’s beneficiaries. Charities who are not looking at their thirtysomethings as leaders are missing the boat and will get simply become irrelevant.

Of course the seniors with ipads in leadership roles have plenty to offer, but the main thing they should be giving their younger and digitally more savvy charges is support and a chance - provide the scaffolding and the governance and then get out of the way…